A little while back, I laid out some ideas I had for covering prospects and draft matters this offseason, and asked for some feedback as to things people might like to see covered as well. I received a handful of suggestions, including an emailed suggestion to look at the history of Cardinal signings in Latin America, which I do plan on trying to get to sometime this offseason. However, in the meantime, I’m going to cover another suggested topic; someone in the comments section requested a history of all the Cardinals’ first round picks (I assume they meant recent history, and not since the inception of the draft itself), and how they did compared to who the optimal selection might have been.
In the past I know I’ve done some draft history type stuff, covering each of the Cards’ draft classes as a whole, but I don’t know that I’ve ever drilled down specifically on just their top picks in this way. Thus, today I’m going to start by going through the years Jeff Luhnow ran the draft, then next time cover the post-Luhnow era of picks. What I’ll be doing here is covering the Cards’ top pick each year, as well as maybe a secondary pick if it seems instructive in some way, and then try to come up with who the best realistic pick at that point would have been. By realistic I mean a player who was widely seen to fit in that range, within a reasonable margin of opinion. For instance, Albert Pujols was always going to be the best pick in the ‘99 draft, but comparing your club’s first round pick to Albert is not really instructive. There’s a reason why Pujols wasn’t picked until the thirteenth round, and just because he magically turned into a Hall of Famer doesn’t mean you can glean anything from who he was in junior college vs some failed high school righthander who never quite came back from Tommy John or something. Looking at why a club didn’t pick, say, Walker Buehler, though, is more reasonable. I hope that makes sense.
As I said, today we’ll be looking at Jeff Luhnow’s seven drafts heading up the scouting department. He was with the club in 2004, when they picked Chris Lambert and Mike Ferris over, say, Dustin Pedroia, but Luhnow wasn’t yet in charge of drafting, being at the time just a quant consultant, and the Cardinals hadn’t yet made their hard pivot from Bill DeWitt on down toward development from within being the new watchword of the organisation. So rather than try to relitigate draft picks from an environment we don’t fully understand from this future place, we’ll start with the first draft run by the man hired to renovate the franchise’s amateur talent pipeline.
Cardinals’ Top Pick(s): Colby Rasmus, OF (28), and Tyler Greene, SS (30)
The Luhnow era got off to a roaring start, as the Cardinals in 2005 benefited from multiple extra early picks. Edgar Renteria’s defection to the Red Sox netted the Cards their highest extra pick, giving them two selections at the very end of the first round.
With those two picks, the Cards went for a pair of high-risk, high-reward position players, both of whom were cut from the sabermetric cloth of the day. Rasmus was a high school outfielder from Alabama, while Greene was a college infielder out of Georgia Tech, but their profiles were otherwise remarkably similar. Both were superb athletes, true five-tool talents, and played premium defensive positions. Colby was a natural center fielder (and would even be a good one at certain points in his career), while Greene had all the physical tools one would look for in a defensive stalwart at shortstop. This will probably sound hyperbolic, but Tyler Greene coming out of college had basically the physical tools of an Andrelton Simmons, including a cannon of a throwing arm and 70 grade speed that made him both incredibly rangy and impossibly dangerous on the bases.
More than anything, though, what united Greene and Rasmus was big-time power potential married to extreme questions about plate discipline and, specifically, swing and miss issues. It was clear Luhnow and his new department were going for upside, and were doing so in that way sabermetrically inclined analysts of the time advocated. Power and walks trumped all, while strikeouts were not considered a negative for a hitter.
The Cardinals did reasonably well with these picks overall; Rasmus had a very solid career, if not ever living up to quite what his talent suggested he could be. Greene, sadly, just never quite caught on, though I still find it a little puzzling he never got more of a chance somewhere, even if on a bad rebuilding club. Definitely not slam dunks, and the rest of the Cards’ extremely risky early picks that year were even worse (names like Mark McCormick, who simply broke, and Tyler Herron, who developed a serious drug problem). Still, the Cards and Luhnow had a ton of extra picks, and essentially spent those picks like you would expect a team with a bunch to do so.
The Best Picks: Clay Buccholz (42) and Jed Lowrie (45)
Actually, the two best picks would probably actually be Rasmus and Lowrie, going by career WAR, but basically take any two of Rasmus, Buccholz, and Lowrie and you could call it good. All three have amassed between 15 and 20 WAR in their careers.
The Cards I know had interest in Buccholz, and liked him enough to bring him in to Busch for a private workout before the draft, if I remember correctly. Basically they decided Greene was simply too good to pass on, wouldn’t make it to their next pick at 43, and so passed on Buccholz. As for Lowrie, it’s interesting the Cardinals took the college middle infielder seen as a lock to stay at short, while passing on the guy with the better bat who wasn’t nearly as polished a gloveman. The Cards did the same thing a few years earlier when they passed on Chase Utley in favour of Shaun Boyd. No, don’t bother looking up Shaun Boyd.
I’m not sure there’s much we can glean from these picks. The Cardinals and Luhnow took risks, and did well enough with one pick, while the other flamed out. The ‘safer’ pick of Lowrie would actually have been a better one than the riskier profile of Tyler Greene.
Cardinals’ Top Pick: Adam Ottavino, RHP (30)
And here is where we see the first inkling of what basically became a meme used to deride the Luhnow drafting department, as the Cardinals went with a college righthander early in the draft. It would become a bit of a pattern, not necessarily always with the top pick, but with a large number of early picks overall.
Ottavino was also, interestingly, the first of a demographic Luhnow would go to over and over again in the draft, that of the high-risk, raw college pitcher. For whatever reason, particularly early in his tenure, Jeff Luhnow had a penchant for selecting college pitchers, usually right-handers, who were unusually raw for being college guys. We tend to think of college players as the polished, safe picks and high schoolers as the flameout risks with all tools and no skills, but the raw college pitcher turns those expectations on their head. We’re talking guys like Ottavino, Gary Daley, Clay Mortensen, Mark McCormick, Chris Lambert in the ‘04 draft, those sorts of pitchers. Great stuff, usually, but not great results. It’s a strange group to focus on, but it would seem that Luhnow’s group in those days was convinced there was some inefficiency not being exploited in terms of big stuff college throwers who hadn’t yet really turned into proper pitchers. Sadly, for the most part it didn’t pay off.
Ottavino himself obviously turned into a very good pitcher, but only long after the Cardinals had dealt him away to the Rockies and he moved to the bullpen. He was a success in one way, but really more of a draft failure as far as the Cards were concerned.
The Best Pick: Joba Chamberlain (41)
You want to see something ugly? Go look at the first couple rounds of the 2006 draft. That shit is brutal. It’s a wasteland, and a reminder that even the early rounds of the MLB draft are not at all a guarantee of quality players whatsoever. Chris Coghlan was one of the two best players taken in the 31-50 range.
Chamberlain was actually a very similar sort of pitcher to Ottavino at the time of the draft, in that he was a college righthander with huge stuff but not great results. It was basically a coin flip which one you would prefer to have at the time. And really, considering how Chamberlain’s career turned out, it isn’t as if the Cards missed on a franchise player. He did have a run there in about 2008 where he looked like something truly special, though.
Cardinals’ Top Pick: Pete Kozma, SS (18)
Ah, the famous (or perhaps infamous), Pete Kozma pick. It was, at the time, a maddeningly frustrating pick, because it felt like the Cards went for one of the lowest-ceiling players in the entire draft, rather than taking a much better shot at a star player with one of a couple pitchers. Considering how things worked out, though, the Cardinals actually did about as well as any club drafting in the back half of the first round; I lied a few minutes ago when I said the early rounds of the 2006 draft were a wasteland. These, these are the wastelands, children. The 2007 draft was a nightmare, with names like Blake Beavan and Joe Savery and Andrew Brackman and Josh Vitters haunting scouting directors for years to come.
Kozma did at least make it to the majors, and had himself an acceptable career. Um, okay, maybe not acceptable? We’ll always have September of 2012, how about that? The lesson of Pete Kozma is that a player with no real outstanding tool is going to have a pretty hard cap on his ceiling.
The Best Pick: Rick Porcello, RHP (27) or Todd Frazier, 3B (34)
Rick Porcello was the obvious pick, and the obvious focus for Cardinal fans’ ire. He was by far the most advanced high school arm to hit the draft in years, and was seen as a can’t miss stud prospect at the time. In hindsight, however, Porcello and Scott Boras’s insistence on a major league contract was a bigger stumbling block for clubs than his high bonus demands, and I don’t think it’s all a stretch to think that Porcello’s career was actually adversely affected by his being rushed to the majors due to that contract stipulation. He did eventually win a Cy Young award, and has been worth over 25 WAR in his career, but there were multiple years at the beginning of his career when Porcello was clearly just holding on for dear life and really should have been in Double A honing his craft.
Frazier is the other solid pick that could have been justifiably made at eighteen, though that would have felt like a reach at the time. Still, he had significant offensive upside, and did eventually make good on most of that promise. In general, though, the first couple rounds of the 2007 draft were just horrible.
Actually, Matt Harvey could have been an option as well; Harvey eventually got picked in about the third or fourth round, I believe, and didn’t sign, honouring his commitment to North Carolina. He would go on to star for the Tar Heels and get picked very high in 2011. Perhaps a club could have selected him in the middle of the first and tried to force his hand with a bigger bonus, but I don’t know that I would have been willing to take that risk.
Cardinals’ Top Pick: Brett Wallace, 3B/1B (13)
And here we have one of the most fascinating and difficult to assess draft picks in recent Cardinal history. After all, Wallace eventually turned into an all-time bust, a can’t-miss college slugger turned career sub-replacement disappointment. However, Wallace did, in fact, have tremendous value to the Cardinals as the primary piece in the package which brought Matt Holliday to town in 2009, just over a year after Wallace was drafted. Thus, we have to conclude the pick was an excellent one, even if the player ultimately did not pan out, in spectacular fashion. It’s interesting to try and decipher what the Cards really thought of Wallace at various points, and whether they bought in to him as a long-term piece, or merely a minor league slugger who could have value as a trade piece.
Personally, I’ll admit I’m still shocked all the time at how completely Wallace failed to translate to the big leagues. I never bought him as a third baseman, but I really did think he would turn out to be a hell of a hitter. Turns out I was wrong. And so were lots of other people.
The Best Pick(s): Aaron Hicks?, OF, (14)
You know, this is really kind of a tough one, because the value the Cards were able to pull from Wallace when he was tearing up Double A as a 22 year old made him a great pick, while the player he turned out to be is about as bad a bust at thirteen as you can imagine. That being said, we have some options in the rest of the first round that year we could dream on, from Hicks at fourteen (though Hicks took a very, very long time to break out as a solid player), to Andrew Cashner at 19 (eww), to Gerrit Cole at 28, who then didn’t sign and headed off to UCLA. Once upon a time, Brett Lawrie at 16 looked like a heist.
In other words, the Cardinals probably did as well as they could have at thirteen with Wallace. Particularly when we look at the pick for the value it created, rather than the player it was used on.
Cardinals’ First Pick: Shelby Miller, RHP (19)
There was a time when Shelby Miller looked like a young star in the league. Never forget that, and always remember just how drastically things can change. Still, Shelby gave the Cardinals one really good season, one mediocre one, and then was the primary piece in the Jason Heyward package, which turned out to be worth 6.5 wins in the one season Heyward spent wearing red. Another case of knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Scouting your own players is one of the most important things an organisation can be good at, and John Mozeliak does not often misstep when it comes to dealing away prospects.
The Best Pick: Mike Trout, OF (26)
Let’s just not talk about this one, okay? Luhnow himself said at some point in the past that Trout was the second guy on their board at nineteen, right after Shelby, who they didn’t expect to fall to them. Seriously, let’s just not talk about it.
Cardinals’ First Pick: Zack Cox, 2B/3B (25)
Woof. This was a misstep, and felt like it pretty much from the get-go, at least to me. I was never a fan of Zack Cox, always seeing him as a sort of ‘tweener bat with no good position, and that’s basically exactly what he turned out to be. He was also a draft-eligible sophomore, so the Cardinals overpaid for the privilege of signing him, as well. He really couldn’t play anywhere well in the infield, and while he showed an ability to hit for both average and power in college, he never did both at the same time, and basically proved only he could do neither at the same time in pro ball.
The good news, I suppose, is that the Cardinals did manage to trade Cox for Edward Mujica, after the bloom was already off the rose for their first-round draft pick, and turn Mujica into a very serviceable late-inning reliever for a couple years. Still, turning a first-round pick into a setup reliever is not exactly the sort of upside you’re looking for when the draft rolls around.
The Best Pick: Noah Syndergaard, RHP (38) or Aaron Sanchez, RHP (34)
I admit it’s hard to really say the Cards should have been on Syndergaard at 25, because even at 38 he was seen as a surprise pop-up talent and a bit of a reach at the time. He had the frame and emerging velocity, but he was also incredibly raw at the time. Sanchez is a little easier comparison for me to see, because he was very much in that range of draft prospects where the Cards took Cox. Syndergaard was significantly lower, barely on a lot of people’ radars, and was at least partially a slight money-saving pick to help pay for Sanchez, if I remember correctly. The pitcher Syndergaard eventually grew into was basically the best-case scenario for any high school pitching project, with more velocity and polish piling up to a degree it’s really tough to say should have been obvious.
Cardinals’ Top Pick: Kolten Wong, 2B (22)
I was not a huge fan of the Cards’ pick of Kolten Wong at 22 back in 2011, but Jeff Luhnow’s last first pick turned out quite well for the club in the long-term. At the time, I saw Wong as a little more athletic version of Zack Cox, as a mediocre bat without much positional certainty. To Wong’s credit, though, he’s turned out to be a much better athlete than I saw him as at the time of the draft, and while he’s never really pushed toward star territory in his big league career, he has absolutely proven worth his draft position.
Wong played as much outfield as he did second base for the University of Hawaii, though he did settle in as more of an infielder by the time his junior season rolled around. The bat was good, with plus bat speed and some natural feel to hit, but it didn’t necessarily look like anything special. Not a lot of power, and Wong was never a particularly patient at-bat, showing below-average on-base skills.
In the years since, of course, Wong has cemented himself as an above-average defender at the keystone, and has been a decent bat for a middle infielder. Not great as a hitter, but fine for a guy who plays up the middle and does so well. Wong was a fairly safe draft pick, and he’s proven out to be exactly the sort of high-floor, low-ceiling player the Cardinals seemed to believe they were getting when they made the pick back in 2011.
The Best Pick(s): Joe Panik, 2B (29), Jackie Bradley Jr., OF (40), Trevor Story, SS (45)
There are actually plenty of players to choose from here, as the 2011 draft was remarkably deep with solid talent throughout the first few rounds. I was personally a fan of Henry Owens at the time, a tall lefty the Red Sox took toward the end of the first round who made it all the way to the big leagues, and had some real success, before the wheels came off and he just completely forgot how to throw strikes. Owens’s downfall is one of the more surprising I can think of in recent years.
Joe Panik was basically the same player as Wong, with a little more bat and a little less athletic ability, and has mostly settled in as exactly that sort of player in the majors. He had a fluky good 2015 line which made him look like a star, but has really been more of a league-average or slightly above bat for the most part. Jackie Bradley brings all-world defense and an inconsistent bat to the table, and that’s roughly what he was projected to do coming out of college. He was a supreme athlete in the SEC, but had huge swing and miss concerns as an amateur. Trevor Story is one of the most interesting names here, as he has grown into one of the better shortstops in baseball, but in a very different way than he looked like he might at the time of the draft. He was a skinny bundle of energy as a high-schooler, but filled out into a much bigger, stronger athlete as he matured. Story was a pure projection pick, and one that has worked out beautifully for the Rockies. Still, he would have felt like a big reach at 25 back then.
Oh, one last thing: you could pull Blake Snell into this discussion if you really wanted to, as he went #52 overall, and turned out to be pretty good. However, that feels disingenuous to me, as I remember Snell being seen as more of a third-round type at the time, albeit an intriguing arm talent all the same. Tall, skinny, left-handed, and raw, Snell had the makings of the big curve already, and could touch 92 with his fastball. He was a little like Matt Moore, if you want to know the truth, another high school third-rounder the Rays drafted and carefully polished into a gem before arm troubles derailed his career. Snell was interesting, yes, but he just wasn’t really anywhere close to a first round grade at the time.
And that, dear friends, is the end of the Jeff Luhnow era of drafts. Kolten Wong was the final first-round pick Luhnow would make as the guy in charge of the Cardinals’ draft, and he headed off to Houston with the St. Louis farm system in remarkable condition.
Here’s the thing, though: I think that, looking over this list, it’s fairly obvious that Jeff Luhnow was not, in any way, a genius of drafting early on. When he was running the Cards’ scouting department, they actually didn’t do particularly well in the first couple rounds. Rather, it was Luhnow’s and his department’s ability to scrape players from the lower ranks and later rounds that actually built the Cardinal farm system to the point it was heading into 2012.
It’s also interesting to me in looking back that there isn’t really much of a pattern at all with the way Luhnow drafted in the first round. The Cards during those years had the reputation of a club that leaned heavily on performance, almost always went for college track records, and just generally took the most boring, college righty sort of players possible year after year. And yet, when we actually tally up the seven years and eight first-round proper selections Luhnow made as scouting director, the Redbirds only leaned college by a margin of 5-3. They also took six position players, against only two pitchers, which I’m frankly kind of floored by now looking back. Admittedly, they went much heavier on pitching if we expand this to the first, say, three rounds, as there were a ton of supplemental and second round picks spent on college righties, but when it came to those first picks that often kind of defined how a draft was seen, the Jeff Luhnow Cardinals did not go for pitching nearly so often as a lot of people seemed to believe.
There’s also, honestly, not a ton of pattern on the players the Cards missed on, to the extent of trying to identify any systemic weaknesses in their scouting. They went for guys who played premium defensive spots in ‘05 and ‘07, went for the most polished bats they could find in 2008, ‘10, and ‘11, and took pitchers the other two years. That’s a mild preference for college performers, it would seem, but not an extremely strong one. It is interesting that Luhnow and his department went very risky right out of the gate in 2005, but then seemed to play it much more conservatively most years after that, with Shelby Miller in 2009 the huge outlier of that bunch.
There was also a narrative throughout the Luhnow years that the Cardinals were trying to build a system with some useful depth at first, and then were willing to be more aggressive once they had begun to fill in the farm with at least useful pieces, rather than simply lacking any kind of base level quality as had been the case for the Cards from around 2003 to ‘07 or so. There does seem to be some truth to that, though it shows up more strongly in later rounds than in the first.
Unfortunately, as much as we might like to ascribe a specific direction or thought process or ‘style’ of drafting to the Jeff Luhnow era Cardinals, it really does seem, looking at seven years’ worth of top picks, that they actually did just mostly pick who they thought was the best player available at any given slot.
Next time, we’ll look at the Cardinals’ top draft picks in the post-Luhnow era, under three separate scouting directors, and see if we can spot any macro trends in those years. Until then.